Miskitu Moravians in Mesoamerica: Indigeneity, Faith, and Revolution in the 1980s

This post is a part of our “Faith in Revolution” series, which explores the ways that religious ideologies and communities shaped the revolutionary era. Check out the entire series.

By Emily Snyder

Somewhere in Nicaragua, there are forty lost VHS tapes. These tapes record interviews with Miskitu Moravian pastors conducted by Fernando Colomer and detail the abuses suffered by an Indigenous religious community in the 1980s under the Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional (FSLN, or Sandinistas), the leftist party that seized power from the Somoza family dictatorship through armed revolution in 1979. Colomer was the Superintendent of the Nicaraguan Moravian Church from 1980-1982, precisely the years when relations between the Indigenous Miskitu people of the Atlantic Coast and the Pacific-centered Sandinista revolutionary government dissolved into a U.S.-fueled civil war. His efforts to create a video archive of pastoral experiences highlights the unusual position the Nicaraguan Moravian Church found itself in during the early 1980s.

As part of their socially and politically transformative agenda, the Sandinistas intended to incorporate the primarily Black and Indigenous Atlantic Coast, historically separate from the Pacific region, into official Nicaragua and as a bastion of the national revolution through literacy, education, health, cultural and construction projects. But Sandinismo, the FSLN’s revolutionary ideology, reiterated nineteenth-century narratives of mestizaje as a recipe for revolutionary consolidation. Revolutionary mestizaje, in turn, continued to exclude Black and Afro-descendent Indigenous people through its emphasis that mestizo peasants, descended from Indigenous populations that resisted Spanish colonialism, “were the protagonists of twentieth-century nationalist struggles.”[1] This discourse left little room for racial and ethnic demands within the revolution. Indeed, Sandinistas arrested Miskitu political leaders in 1981 after they put forward a claim on more than 30 percent of Nicaraguan land. Soon after, thousands of Miskitu began organizing armed resistance against the Sandinistas from Honduras – initially without US support.

Indigenous mobilization against the FSLN emerged from the politicization of the Miskitu ethnic identity, which was tied to Protestant Moravianism.[2] By the 1980s, the Moravian Church had transformed from a foreign, missionary-based institution to an Indigenously-led organization. Creoles, English-speakers of African descent whose ethnogenesis occurred over the course of the nineteenth century as native Coastal inhabitants split between identifying as English (Creole) or Indian (Miskito), held top leadership positions within the Church.[3] But the Miskitu filled the majority of Moravian congregations, and the majority of the Miskitu people belonged to the Church and assumed a religious identity. Therefore, Miskitu political mobilization operated within discourses of Moravianism in order to appeal to Miskitu grassroots and gain legitimacy for political goals.[4] When war broke out in 1981, the Creole leaders of the Moravian Church chose not to publicly support Miskitu insurgency. Instead, they adopted a strategy of mediation. Colomer, the Superintendent and only Miskitu to hold a high position within the Church, played a key role in negotiations between Miskitu insurgents and the FSLN.

Colomer was born January 1, 1948 in Bonanza.[5] His father, Fernando, worked as a miner for the Neptune Gold Mining Company, while his mother, Lina, sold tortillas. At age 19, he enrolled in the Instituto Bilwaskarma Seminario Morava (IBSM), where he trained as a pastor. He married Rosita Magdalena Tercero in 1975 and they had three children. Before he died in 2012, Colomer wrote about his time as Superintendent and the relationship between the Moravian Church and the FSLN in a memoir that he intended to publish, but never did. Colomer’s documents demonstrate that during the 1980s, he straddled space between the greater Miskitu nation, the Moravian Church, and the FSLN. Colomer believed in working for peace but also in the Miskitu’s cause, finding it just.

Engaging in mediation between the FSLN and Miskitu insurgents required Colomer to refrain from endorsing the Indigenous movement and from denouncing Sandinista abuses. By the middle of 1983, the conflict between the FSLN and the Miskitu had uprooted 69 Moravian congregations, destroying church buildings and pastors’ homes, a hospital, a seminary, a school, and incarcerated and took the lives of hundreds.[6] Nevertheless, the Moravian Church insisted that their problems with the state did not amount to ‘religious persecution.’[7]

But Colomer wrestled the Church’s silence surrounding his community’s treatment, and his own complicity in its politics. He wrote, “The Moravian Church played an important role as peace-maker, mediator, reconciler and conciliator. However, we were not very belligerent in denunciating sin, wrong administration of justice: we acted with great fear, and sometimes we only conformed and acted as spectators to the wrongs which happened to God’s people.”[8] In the 1990s, in the aftermath of civil war, Colomer began collecting pastor biographies based on written questionnaires and taped interviews. These interviews were recorded on the now lost VHS tapes. In contrast to Moravian political strategy in the 1980s, Colomer documents exactly what the Church kept quiet.

The twelve biographical sketches that made it into the archive include a wide range of pastoral experiences and choices made during the war. Sandalio Patrón Allen, pastor of the Musawas community, was arrested after returning from a MISURASATA (Miskitos, Sumos, Ramas, and Sandinistas All Together— a coastal Indigenous political organization founded to represent Indigenous communities to the Sandinista state) meeting in February 1982. First taken to Bilwi and then to Managua, Sandinista soldiers imprisoned, beat, and tortured him until the amnesty decree passed at the end of 1983.[9] Pastor Nilio was arrested on January 7, 1982 when he went to a Sandinista military base to look for pills for his pregnant wife. The FSLN also tortured, starved, and held him in Managua until the end of 1983.[10] Other testimonies, such as Calixtro Espinoza’s and Ignacio Simon Walter’s, discuss pastors’ decisions to cross to Honduras, or stay with communities in Nicaragua and be vulnerable to Sandinista capture.[11] Walter stayed, despite being arrested and tortured, while Espinoza left. Colomer also recorded the story of Pudy Simmons, relayed to him by Simmon’s widow, Corincilla. On March 16, 1981, Simmons was on his way to Dakhan, a guerrilla community, with a “spiritual mission.” He encountered Sandinista soldiers along the road, who detained and then shot him.[12] And Alvaro Cirilo Wilson’s interview indicates some pastors took up arms and fought: his guerrilla group included three other pastors.[13]

These testimonies detail the FSLN’s strategy to stem counterrevolution by targeting Miskitu Moravian pastors. In amassing upwards of forty recorded interviews, Colomer created an archive. The testimonies are singular because they were given to a Miskitu interviewer who shared some of the pastors’ experiences and ethnic and religious identification. Such a concentrated effort to document the social and political lives of Misktu religious leaders during the 1980s might not exist elsewhere. Moravian pastors’ role within the Miskitu community was a contentious flashpoint during the war: Sandinistas considered them subversive counterrevolutionary leaders, while Contras looked to pastors for religious justification and guidance. Had they been publicized by the Church in the 1980s, the details of pastor’s sufferings could have been an easy source of propaganda, and used to validate U.S. intervention. This, along with wartime constraints, likely compelled Colomer to wait until peace was achieved before setting out to document the suffering the revolutionary state inflicted upon his community.

Colomer’s effort to record Indigenous pastors, so soon after the civil war ended, rings unusual within the archive. In the 1990s, when Colomer began collecting interviews, the drive to remember countered Nicaraguan society’s greater desire to forget the revolution. The civil war had cost more 30,000 lives, and after the FSLN’s electoral loss in 1990 many wanted to put the trauma of the last decade behind. Unlike other Central American neighbors that also experienced war and revolution in the 1980s, Nicaragua forewent a Truth Commission or some sort of effort at arbitrated public reckoning. Instead, in the 1990s, for the new rightist government, “to erase the Revolution was not only to destroy its physical evidence, but also to delegitimize its political project and those who supported it as negative, evil.”[14] As for the Sandinistas, deception, frustration, and rising neoliberalism pushed many to embrace forgetfulness. Public memory recovery projects started coalescing after former Sandinista leaders published their memoires in the early 2000s, and after the FSLN returned to power in 1996.[15] Colomer’s early efforts to register the suffering of his community, when wounds were freshest, speaks about those grassroots endeavors for remembering in the face of so much forgetting in Nicaragua and Latin America.


Emily Snyder is a PhD Candidate at Yale University. Her dissertation, “Untangling Revolutions: Cuba, Nicaragua, and the United States in the Cold War Caribbean, 1979-1990,” examines Cuba and Nicaragua’s revolutionary relationship in a hemispheric context. She can be reached at emily.snyder@yale.edu.

Further Readings:

Baracco, Luciano, ed. National Integration and Contested Autonomy: The Caribbean Coast of Nicaragua. New York: Algora Publishing, 2011.

Dunbar-Ortiz, Roxanne. Blood on the Border: A Memoir of the Contra War. Cambridge: South End Press, 2005.

Gudmundson, Lowell and Justin Wolfe, eds. Blacks and Blackness in Central America: Between Race and Place. Durham: Duke University Press, 2010.

Jarquín, Mateo. “Red Christmases: The Sandinistas, Indigenous Rebellion, and the Origins of the Nicaraguan Civil War, 1981–82,” Cold War History Vol. 18 No.1 (2018): 91-107.

Endnotes:

[1] Juliet Hooker, “‘Beloved Enemies:’ Race and Official Mestizo Nationalism in Nicaragua,” Latin American Research Review 40, no. 3 (2005): 30.

[2] Moravianism is a Protestant denomination that arrived to the Caribbean Coast of Nicaragua via missionaries from Jamaica in 1848. It heavily emphasizes evangelism.

[3] Baron Pineda, Shipwrecked Identities: Navigating Race on Nicaragua’s Mosquito Coast (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2006): 53–57.

[4] Susan Hawley, “Does God Speak Miskitu? Religious Identity and Religious Nationalism Among the Miskitu Indians of Nicaragua,” PhD Dissertation, Mansfield College, 1997.

[5] Fernando Colomer, “Y me seréis testigos,” p. 40-42, Fernando Colomer Papers (hereafter, PP CF), Box 2, Moravian Church Archives, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania (hereafter, MCA).

[6] “La situación de la costa atlántica y la iglesia Morava de Nicaragua y supuesta represión y persecución religiosa,” 29 Aug. 1984, p.1, in Fernando Colomer, “Memorias de la Iglesia Morava, 1974-2000,” p. 166, PP CF, Box 2, MCA.

[7] “Report of Delegation to Investigate ‘Religious Persecution’ in Nicaragua,” 29 Aug.-2 Sept. 1984, p. 9, Board of World Missions, Box 2, MCA.

[8] Colomer, “Memorias,” p.163.

[9] “Sandalio Patron Allen,” PP CF, Box 2, Folder: Unbound Biographies of Pastors, MCA.

[10] “Nilio Lopez Frank,” PP CF, Box 2, Folder: Unbound Biographies of Pastors, MCA.

[11]  “Calixtro Espinoza;” “Ignacio Simon Walter,” PP CF, Box 2, Folder: Unbound Biographies of Pastors, MCA.

[12] “Pudy Simmons Percy,” PP CF, Box 2, Folder: Unbound Biographies of Pastors, MCA.

[13] “Alvaro Cirilo Wilson: Pastor Guerrillero,” PP CF, Box 2, Folder: Unbound Biographies of Pastors, MCA.

[14] Fernanda Soto Joya, Ventanas en la Memoria: Recuerdos de la Revolución en la Frontera Agrícola (Managua: UCA Publicaciones, 2011): 6.

[15] For memory studies, see for exmaple Ventanas en la Memoria; Wangki Awala: Nuestra Memoria de la Guerra para Vivir en Paz (Universidad de la Regiones Autónomas de la Costa Caribe Nicaragüense, 2011). For Sandinista memoirs, see Giocanda Belli, El país bajo mi piel: memoirias de amor y guerra (Barcelona: Plaza. & Janés Editores, 2001); Sergio Ramírez, Adiós muchachos: una memoria de la revolución sandinista (Madrid: Aguilar, 1999).

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